By Perry Diaz
It’s tough fighting the world’s second biggest economic power and most populous country. But when another economic heavyweight joins the fight against you, they could trounce you very badly. And to make the situation worse, the two adversaries are the giant People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the Lilliputian but economically rich Republic of China (ROC), which is more commonly known as Taiwan. With the Philippines up against the two Chinas, her options are limited.
Over the past several years, China increased her defense budget to double-digit increments. In the case of Taiwan, the United States provided her with firepower to defend herself from China whose ultimate goal is to take over Taiwan and complete the unification of the two Chinas under one government.
But the U.S. has nothing to do with that. Although the U.S. recognizes the PRC under a “One China Policy,” she made it known that Taiwan would be defended should China decide to invade Taiwan.
The Philippines followed suit and adopted a “One China Policy” too; thus, severing her diplomatic relationship with Taiwan. However, the influential community of Chinese expatriates and refugees in the Philippines identify themselves with Chiang Kai-shek and his Kuomintang Party who fled to Taiwan in 1949 after they were defeated by Mao Zedong and his Communist Party in a bloody Civil War.
To continue their “friendship,” the Philippines and Taiwan established two offices to serve as conduit between the two governments. The Philippine government opened the Manila Economic and Cultural Office (MECO) in Taipei; and Taiwan opened the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office (TECO) in Manila. Indeed, the relationship between the Philippines and Taiwan couldn’t have been better… until last May 9 when an incident in disputed waters ended in the death of a Taiwanese fisherman.
Fishing boat incident
According to Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) account, two Taiwanese fishing boats were sighted in the Balintang channel just north of Luzon, which is Philippine territory and not claimed by Taiwan or any other country. In what appeared to be illegal fishing, the PCG vessel approached the fishing boats but one of them tried to ram the PCG vessel. The PCG fired at the charging fishing boat to disable it. The fishing boat was disabled; however, unbeknown to the PCG crew, a 65-year old Taiwanese fisherman was hit. Then, a “big white ship” came to view and the PCG vessel took off. (Source: The Daily Tribune)
The incident created a crescendo of events leading to violence against Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) in Taiwan. MECO Chairman Amadeo Perez reported that an OFW was attacked with a baseball bat by an angry mob in Kaohsiung City, Taiwan. Other attacks on OFWs were reported. “The situation in Taiwan now is very tense,” said Perez.
In an attempt to placate Taiwan, President Benigno Aquino III apologized for the death of the Taiwanese fisherman but the Taiwanese government uncharacteristically rejected it as “insincere.”
And to make matters worse, the Taiwanese government banned the entry of OFWs. The Philippine government is preparing evacuation plans should the need to bring the OFWs home arises. The Taiwanese government also issued an advisory to her citizens not to visit the Philippines.
Enter the bully
Meanwhile, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said, “We strongly condemn the barbaric shooting and killing of the Taiwanese fisherman, demanding that the Philippines should investigate the case and furnish the details as soon as possible. We are deeply grieved about the death of the Taiwanese compatriot and have sent condolences to his family.” With China openly siding with Taiwan, it makes one wonder if China was taking advantage of the incident to drive a wedge between the two allies of the United States. Indeed, China has been trying very hard to neutralize the United States’ military presence in the Western Pacific, particularly in the South and East China Seas.
In August 2012, China tricked the Philippines into ending the standoff at the Scarborough Shoal (Panatag Shoal) by agreeing to a withdrawal of the two countries’ naval vessels from the area. As soon as the Philippines withdrew her Coast Guard vessels, China cordoned off the only opening to the shoal while several Chinese ships stayed. Since then, China has de facto possession of the shoal, which is about 124 miles from Luzon and within the Philippines’ 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).
Recently, two events happened that put Chinese expansionism into the geopolitical equation. First, it questioned Japan’s ownership of the Ryukyu archipelago, which includes Okinawa where the U.S. maintains 18 army, navy, air force, and marine bases.
China claims that the Ryukyus were once a Chinese vassal state during the Ming and Qing dynasties; therefore, the island chain should be returned to China.
With this new “territorial dispute,” Japan’s ongoing dispute with China over ownership of the Senkaku Islands takes different dimension. Some experts are saying that China is using the Ryukyu issue as a bargaining chip to her claim over the Senkakus, a group of five uninhabited islands and islets wedged between Okinawa and Taiwan.
When Japan and Taiwan recently signed a joint fishing agreement around the Senkakus, China became furious. And right after that, the ownership of the Ryukyus came into play.
China also opened another potential area of dispute – right inside Philippine territory. A few days ago, several Chinese ships were sighted near the Ayungin Shoal in the Kalayaan town in the province of Palawan.
Last May 10, a Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) spokesperson said that Ayungin Shoal is within the Philippines’ EEZ. He said that the entry of foreign fishing vessels in an EEZ is a violation of the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). China and the Philippines are signatories to UNCLOS. DFA filed a protest letter with the Chinese Embassy in Manila on the provocative presence of two Chinese maritime surveillance shipsand one warship around Ayungin Shoal. (Source: The Philippine Star)
Taiwan also has a piece of the action among six nations involved in territorial disputes in the Spratly archipelago. Recently, Taiwan announced plans to expand a pier in Taiping Island, the largest island in the Spratlys. By expanding the pier in the fortified island, it would allow port calls by Taiwan’s 2,000-ton frigates. The island has already a 3,800-foot runway, which Taiwan built in 2006. (Source: New Straits Times)
During the 115th anniversary celebration of the Philippine Navy last May 21, Aquino declared, “Our message to the world is clear: what is ours is ours, and we will repel any and all attempts to claim what is ours, and defend ourselves against any form of aggression, especially within our backyard.”
It seems that it’s going to be a battle between David vs. two Goliaths.